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Op-ed: Five years on, UCLA’s Basic Needs Redistribution Center shows promising growth

By Robert Watson

Nov. 26, 2023 5:42 p.m.

This post was updated Nov. 26 at 10:27 p.m.

At the beginning of 2018, a small group of students had an idea.

Instead of throwing out unused clothes, school supplies and hygiene products, what if students could easily donate those items back to their peers?

At the time, we knew that many California college students did not have access to various basic needs items. Indeed, students across the UC system have consistently reported their struggles to obtain affordable housing, food and other essentials.

So, we got to work.

What at first was only an indiscriminate distribution of painted “donation bins” scattered across campus became an enduring partnership between campus administrators and students. This initiative would ultimately change the course of basic needs accessibility within the UC.

Following months of students demonstrating that they had plenty of excess clothes, school supplies and hygiene products they were willing to donate, we went to administration with our proposal: a permanent home for a Basic Needs Redistribution Center on campus.

Administration understood the necessity for such a space for students and worked to identify options for an available space. After detailed logistical discussions, including significant efforts to ensure that the space was up-to-date with various safety codes, Room B54 in the Student Activities Center was identified as a home for the center.

Now came the task of transforming three former storage rooms into UCLA’s Basic Needs Redistribution Center.

We partnered with UCLA’s administration and dozens of organizations on campus. Whether it was Bruin Visual Arts Club’s incredible mural painting in the space, Swipe Out Hunger’s expansive hygiene donation initiative or the Green Initiative Fund’s consistent monetary support for the center’s infrastructure, students from across campus were invested in preparing the space for use. The partnership between students and administration has also been integral to the success of this initiative by ensuring that the center has a permanent space to thrive.

Finally, the Good Clothes Good People Basic Needs Redistribution Center opened Nov. 2, 2018. Since then, thousands of students have utilized the resources offered at the student-run center each year. Sometimes, a student just needs a few pencils and examination booklets on their way to a midterm. Other times, a student in crisis is looking for hygiene products that they otherwise would not be able to afford or needs a suit and tie for an upcoming job interview.

Because of the popularity of the center, it’s no coincidence that in 2020, students overwhelmingly voted to increase their own student fees to permanently fund its maintenance. Because of that historic campuswide referendum, the center has received tens of thousands of dollars each year to provide students with free and sustainable basic needs resources.

Following the creation of the center, UCLA increased its own institutional investment in basic needs. UCLA opened an administrative-run basic needs service support center to centralize some services and amplify the work of other basic needs initiatives on campus. It’s also no coincidence that, since the Basic Needs Redistribution Center’s opening, campuses throughout the UC system have also revamped their commitments to tackling students’ basic needs challenges.

The story of creating UCLA’s Basic Needs Redistribution Center is one of a few students with a small idea that sprung into something more. The effort involved every aspect of campus, lasting partnerships with administration and students giving back to students.

Students and alumni alike acknowledge that more resources are urgently needed to fully address students’ continued struggles with basic needs accessibility.

Instead of students across the UC resorting to increasing their own campus fees to meet their basic needs, California’s state legislature must continue to ramp up funding for affordable housing, food and other essentials at state universities. It is no secret that many of the challenges facing students who the Basic Needs Redistribution Center sought to address remain ever-present for many students within the UC system.

Even so, it’s important to celebrate that, five years later, the student volunteers at UCLA’s Basic Needs Redistribution Center continue to open the center’s doors every day of the week for their peers.

And that itself speaks volumes.

Student leaders and UCLA administration pose for a photo celebrating the grand opening of UCLA's Basic Needs Redistribution Center on Nov. 2nd, 2018. (Courtesy of Robert Blake Watson)
Student leaders and UCLA administration pose for a photo celebrating the grand opening of UCLA’s Basic Needs Redistribution Center on Nov. 2, 2018. (Courtesy of Robert Blake Watson)

Robert Blake Watson was UCLA’s 2019-2020 Student Body President and the founder of UCLA’s Basic Needs Redistribution Center.

The following people have co-signed this op-ed as relevant past and present stakeholders of UCLA’s Basic Needs Redistribution Center.

Breeze Velazquez was UCLA’s 2021-2022 Student Body President.

Carl King Jr. was UCLA’s 2022-2023 Student Body President.

Naomi Hammonds is UCLA’s 2023-2024 Student Body President.

Jonathan Wisner was UCLA’s 2019-2021 Community Service Commissioner.

Mominah Subhan was UCLA’s 2021-2022 Community Service Commissioner.

Juan Flores Jr. was UCLA’s 2022-2023 Community Service Commissioner.

Chia Ying Wong is UCLA’s 2023-2024 Community Service Commissioner.

Jimmy Zhou was UCLA’s 2018-2019 Good Clothes Good People Director.

Sneha Thirkannad was UCLA’s 2019-2020 Good Clothes Good People President.

Elaine Pham was UCLA’s 2020-2022 Good Clothes Good People President.

Labiba Sardar was UCLA’s 2022-2023 Good Clothes Good People President.

Davis La is UCLA’s 2023-2024 Good Clothes Good People President.

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